Walter Aaron Clark is Distinguished Professor of Musicology and the founder/director of the Center for Iberian and Latin American Music at the University of California, Riverside. His books include Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romanticand Enrique Granados: Poet of the Piano. In 2016, King Felipe VI of Spain made him a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel the Catholic. He recently answered some questions about his newest book Los Romeros: Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar.
Q: Your biography, Los Romeros, is the first major study in English of Celedonio Romero and his family, often called the “Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar.” Why did you think it was important for you to tell their story?
It’s important because that story is both fascinating and instructive. When we see highly accomplished performers on stage, in formal attire, impressing the audience with their virtuosity, and receiving standing ovations, it all seems very glamorous and charmed. What we don’t see is the superhuman amount of hard work that went into making that sonata look so easy to play—and the nerves one had to overcome to perform it in front of an audience. We also don’t see the long and perilous road that a family like the Romeros had to travel just to survive, much less thrive. We can derive a lot of inspiration from reading about fellow human beings who have overcome daunting obstacles to achieve something truly great and lasting. The beauty they bring into our world makes it a more bearable place to pass a few decades!
Q: How did you come to know the Romeros personally?
I fell in love with Spanish guitar when I was 14 and growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After many academic detours, I wound up getting a Bachelor of Music degree in classical guitar performance at the University of North Carolina School of the Performing Arts in 1975. A fellow student there was from Los Angeles, and he kept telling me about the Romeros, how phenomenal they were and what a great teacher Pepe Romero was in particular. So, in 1976, I made the pilgrimage to Southern California to take some lessons with Pepe. Yep, he was everything my friend said he was. Eventually I was able to study with Pepe and his brother Celin at UC San Diego, where I completed a Master of Arts degree in 1984. We have remained close friends since that time, and the rest is, as they say, history!
Q: What difficulties did the family have to overcome in bringing the classical Spanish guitar to the United States?
Before the Romeros arrived in 1957, Americans were already somewhat familiar with the classical guitar as a result of Andrés Segovia’s tours here. But the Romeros had their own unique style, and it quickly caught on, especially in the novel format of a guitar quartet. In order to make their great leap across the Atlantic, though, they had to clear many hurdles, diplomatic, political, logistical, and financial. Frankly, they could never have done it without the assistance of an American couple from Santa Barbara who befriended them while vacationing in Málaga during the early 1950s. Farrington and Evelyn Stoddard provided the connections and sponsorship the Romeros needed in order to leave Spain, where Celedonio’s career had hit a glass ceiling. The U.S. beckoned as a land of limitless opportunity and as a refreshing change from Franco’s dictatorship. For over sixty years now, they have flourished here beyond their wildest dreams!
Q: One of the family’s most significant accomplishments is their systematic method of teaching guitar, which you compare to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. How did Pepe Romero teach you about “Right Mindfulness” when playing a piece by Bach?
I tend to intellectualize things. That’s not necessarily bad, but there comes a point in performance where you have to let go. You study the music in depth and practice hard to get the notes right, but unless there is room for expressive spontaneity, the effort will seem forced. Pepe encouraged me to use visualizations in facilitating the release of my creative imagination, beyond mere calculated digitation. These visualizations had nothing to do with the music per se. In the Bach piece (my arrangement of the Prelude from Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No. 1 in G Major), he would have me imagine that my fingers were drops of rain falling on the “pane of glass” formed by the strings. The “rainfall” would vary in intensity according to how I felt about the music. I later learned that this was also how the great Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916) taught his students. That’s how the mind of a genius works. Alas, I’m not a genius!
Q: The epigraph at the beginning of the book is a line from Ramón del Valle-Inclán: “Be like the nightingale, which looks not at the ground from the green branch where it sings.” Why did you feel it was fitting to compare the Romero family to nightingales?
Granados was the subject of my second Oxford biography (Isaac Albéniz was the first), and he loved the song of the nightingale. He mimicked it in several works, most famously in “La maja y el ruiseñor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale) from the Goyescas suite for piano. Granados associated the nightingale’s distinctive arias with the deep insight and inspiration of a true artist. If the Romeros were birds, they would be nightingales. However, I found that particular quote in the family archive, handwritten by Celedonio on a napkin. I chose to begin the book with it because it basically summed up his philosophy of life. Despite all the cruelty and tribulations he had witnessed and endured, his career was dedicated to looking up, not down, as he sang his songs of reverence for the divine presence in nature.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of music from the Romero repertoire?
This is a very difficult question, because they have interpreted and recorded such a wealth of gorgeous music. If compelled to choose, however, I would have to select a number from their quartet repertoire, which they basically created, either by transcribing pre-existing pieces or commissioning new works from contemporary composers. [The envelope, please.] And the winner is: “Amanecer” (Dawn) from Estampas by Federico Moreno Torroba (the subject of my third and final Oxford biography, co-authored with my friend Bill Krause). Torroba (1891-1982) composed this set of “prints” for the Romeros, and they are among his most evocative vignettes. It is a short piece, in ABA form, and as simple and unassuming as can be. But like a great artist, Torroba was able to capture the essence of his subject with a few deft strokes of his musical brush. Its rapturous lyricism basically encapsulates everything I experience about life, all its exhilaration, sadness, and sublime beauty.